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Wednesday, February 4, 2004

The Big Bounce

Posted By on Wed, Feb 4, 2004 at 12:00 AM

By this point in the development of modern American culture, a Hollywood director with a modicum of skill should be able to make a decent movie from an Elmore Leonard novel with the same ease that other sentient beings make microwave popcorn. All the ingredients of a good film are in his books, and if one needs remedial direction, just watch Out of Sight, Get Shorty or even Jackie Brown. But just as it’s not Mr. Redenbacher’s fault if I wrap his bags in foil before hitting “start,” don’t blame Mr. Leonard for the money-muncher that is The Big Bounce.

This movie must have looked like a sure-fire winner in the boardrooms of Warner Bros. You have a Leonard novel as script-fodder, the director of Grosse Pointe Blank, a Hawaiian setting and Owen Wilson paired with a fashion model that spends most of the movie in short skirts or a bikini. Yet the final result is a dull travel film, a bungalow of sand and fog that’s so shoddily assembled it flubs its title reference and lacks a quarter of the footage from the trailer.

Let’s begin our caucus of blame by assigning Wilson with, say, 5 percent of the fault. He’s spent a decade making 17 movies, sounding like a surfer in most of them, coming off as handsome and charming despite his multi-broken nose. The Big Bounce promises to make Wilson, finally, into the surf god he seems born to be; and to that end, Wilson’s character ambles around, talking lovingly about the killer waves. Yet there’s only one shot of Wilson actually on a surfboard in the movie, and the scene is filmed from such a distance that it’s not clear whether his stand-in did the work for him. Where’s the initiative?

The other 95 percent of the blame falls to director George Armitage, screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez and unnamed co-conspirators who may have been leering over them on the set. It’s suspicious that both Armitage and Gutierrez have spent most of their careers in TV, because the movie treats the audience as a collection of morons raised on sitcoms who must hear a character’s name gracelessly repeated several times (“Ray Ritchie gets what he wants!”) to remember who’s who.

Let’s get this straight: Elmore Leonard’s intricate plots don’t work simply because they’re intricate. They work because Leonard humanizes his characters to such a depth that even outlandish actions seem reasonable. It’s hard to put that kind of depth on screen, but when you rip out the dialogue from a Leonard story and dissolve his characters down to a collection of personality tics, the plot becomes an inscrutable parade of events.

The Big Bounce likely will be only a small bump for most involved.

Bikini girl Sara Foster has her Screen Actors Guild card. Owen Wilson has Starsky & Hutch coming this spring. And Leonard has a new book, Mr. Paradise, featuring an 84-year-old lawyer who enjoys the company of women in Michigan cheerleader outfits. Maybe by the time it gets to the Warner Bros. executive suites, they’ll have learned something. Maybe.

E-mail Justin Hyde at letters@metrotimes.com.

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